The challenges faced by HRDs globally can be exacerbated by regional and national trends that impact the operating environment for HRDs, affecting the implementation of action plans and strategies aimed at protecting their rights. From Latin America to Africa, Asia to Europe, these trends highlight the complex and evolving landscape in which HRDs operate, and the ongoing efforts needed to support and protect their vital work.
This article is part of a series of articles published in conjunction with the report, providing complementary information. You can read the full report “HOLDING THE LINE – PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS IN THE FACE OF GLOBAL BACKLASH” here.
In the Americas, there are reports of ongoing and systematic bureaucratic restrictions that hinder the work of human rights organizations. This includes instances where HR organizations, including partners of ProtectDefenders.eu, have faced repeated bureaucratic obstacles in carrying out their important work. Examples of these restrictions include the denial of visas for staff and volunteers, as well as limitations on the handling and use of funds by some banking corporations. These challenges have been reported in countries such as Colombia and Guatemala, and they pose significant barriers to the effective functioning of human rights organizations in these regions. The denial of visas for staff and volunteers can prevent human rights organizations from being able to operate on the ground and effectively carry out their mission. This can result in limitations on their ability to conduct research, monitor human rights violations, and provide assistance and support to affected communities. Similarly, restrictions on the handling and use of funds by banking corporations can hinder the ability of human rights organizations to manage their finances and sustain their operations. These bureaucratic barriers not only impede the work of human rights organizations, but also limit their ability to advocate for and defend the rights of vulnerable populations.
In Colombia, the situation for human rights defenders (HRDs) has worsened as violence against them and their activities has intensified. Colombia, in particular, remains the most dangerous country in the world for HRDs, and the government’s response to the increase in violence during the pandemic has involved the use of “militarization” techniques. The situation is particularly dire for women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Colombia. At the outset of the pandemic, WHRDs faced a decline in security, as confinement measures led to an increase in domestic violence against women and girls. Additionally, WHRDs were disproportionately affected by job losses, as they tend to rely more on informal economies. They also faced increased caregiving responsibilities, as they often shoulder the burden of caring for children, the elderly, and sick individuals in their communities. Moreover, WHRDs in rural and indigenous communities faced additional challenges due to technological gaps, making it harder for them to participate in human rights processes. All these factors compounded the historical exclusion and entrenched sexist practices that WHRDs face in the communities where they work, resulting in a remarkable closure of civic space for WHRDs in Colombia. Strict containment measures during the pandemic further limited WHRDs’ access to networks, circuits, and allied protection organizations, especially for those with limited or no internet access. Instead of moving towards a post-conflict situation, Colombia has experienced a deterioration in the human rights situation, with attacks on the independence of justice, co-optation of state control and investigation bodies, and non-compliance with the Peace Agreement. The situation in Colombia escalated during the national strike protests between April and July 2021, as these protests were met with violent repression by riot police and armed civilians, often with the acquiescence of the authorities. This has further exacerbated the risks and threats faced by HRDs, including WHRDs, as they continue to face significant challenges in their important work of defending human rights.
In Guatemala, the process of electing new magistrates to the Constitutional Court, a key entity for the fight against corruption and for the fight against impunity, has raised strong concerns, and it is perceived that the co-optation of the justice system also limits the access of communities to judicial remedies in their processes of claiming their rights to self-determination in the face of projects promoted by national and transnational companies in their territories. Also in the country, the closure of key institutions created as a result of the signing of the Peace Accords (1996), and the creation in its place of the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (COPADEH), an institution without funds and clear responsibilities assigned, it has made visible the lack of interest of the current government to face the causes that were at the root of the internal armed conflict. Added to the above is the weakening of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) through failure to transfer the resources approved in the General Budget of the Nation which, according to the Ombudsman, prevents the fulfilment of its constitutional mandate and the expansion of the PDH presence in parts of the country where there is conflict over land or extractive projects.
In Honduras, worrying regulations on the management of water resources have been promoted: within the framework of the health emergency due to COVID-19, two executive decrees have raised much concern about the management of water sources, particularly in indigenous and / or protected territories, as it was declared as a national priority the construction of 14 dams, all of them located in regions with previous deep socio-environmental conflicts and with a high presence of peasant communities and indigenous peoples.
In Nicaragua, the repression of civil society organizations and voices critical of the government has been increasing. This includes the suspension of legal status for 39 national non-governmental organizations, including medical organizations that criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic. In addition, permits for 6 NGOs from the United States and Europe, including Oxfam and Diakonia, were cancelled. This brings the total number of organizations closed by the government since 2018 to 55, based on allegations of failure to comply with legal obligations. In recent years, the Nicaraguan government has heavily repressed political opponents, human rights defenders, protesters, and journalists. This has been marked by the enactment of laws that impose abusive restrictions on civil society organizations, including questioning international funding as a means of foreign intervention or supporting organized crime and terrorism. These laws have turned the defense of human rights and the exercise of civil and political rights into crimes or cybercrimes punishable by life imprisonment. The government has also employed an official rhetoric that portrays human rights defenders, journalists, and opponents as the “internal enemy”, which is clearly an attempt to discourage people from defending human rights, intimidate critics, and silence dissenting voices. As a result, there is a pervasive climate of fear among those who dare to speak up, and authorities have launched a crusade against civil society organizations, media outlets, human rights defenders, and journalists, further exacerbating the climate of fear and intimidation.
In Brazil, during the initial year of the project, President Bolsonaro and his government members have been known to engage in insulting and humiliating behavior towards journalists and media outlets. This has created a toxic atmosphere of hate and suspicion towards journalism, undermining the crucial role of a free press in a democratic society. The actions of President Bolsonaro and his government have been widely criticized for their detrimental impact on freedom of the press in Brazil. Insults, threats, and derogatory remarks targeting journalists and media organizations have become alarmingly common, contributing to a hostile environment that undermines the ability of journalists to carry out their work independently and without fear of reprisal. Such behavior from the country’s top leadership had a chilling effect on the media and creates a culture of intimidation that stifles freedom of expression and erodes public trust in the media.